As a GM, there is nothing I like less during the start of a campaign than character creation. For me, having to herd a group of players through the act of creating their characters is often more than I can take. Though an avoidance of pain, I typically let my players take great liberties with their concepts, which often leads to disjointed groups or straining the campaign premise. Last week I did something unexpected, and I called for a Character Creation Do Over.

It Seemed to be going well

We were starting a new Fate Core game based off of a previous home-brew world, Elhal. We started with the Campaign Creation activities and came up with an interesting set of events, people, and places in which to set the campaign. Then we got into character creation. Of the three players, one concept was pretty solid, one was pretty good needing a little work, and the last one was not really a good fit for the world (aka Snowflake).

I did what I normally do, which is to bend the campaign world to fit. An adjustment here, place a village there, and the last character became an ok fit. We wrapped the session and everyone headed home. The first sign something was wrong was the lack of a GM’s High, but I chalked it off to being tired.

The next morning, I got separate emails from two of the players. Neither was happy about how the character creation process went. Neither was excited about their characters or the group, and were not excited for the campaign overall.

What I Would Normally Do

In the past, I would have reassured the players that this was just the start of the campaign, and like the pilot of a TV show, characters are always a bit off until they have been played a bit. We would have then plowed into the first few sessions and let things shake out. Often this would result in someone changing or making a new character, or I would alter the original concept for the campaign to better accommodate the group. I would hope that in the coming sessions the group would develop a chemistry and would gel as a believable group.

I have had about 50% success rate with this method. Some times the most unlikely group of characters clicks and the campaign takes off. The other 50% of the time the group never seems to come together, the subsequent sessions become more labored and eventually no one is really having fun. The campaign then gets killed unceremoniously.

What I Actually Did

Looking at two separate emails from players, and my own lack of excitement, I emailed the group and told them that we missed our objective of creating a viable group. I told them that everyone needed to start over. The group took it well; no one was overly invested in their characters.

We started from scratch. We re-worked the campaign concept coming up with one that was more interesting. From there we started the process of making new characters. For the one player who’s character was the least best fit, I worked directly with them to come up with a concept that they would enjoy while making sure it tied well with the campaign world. The other players started working on their characters again. This time the characters are more interesting, look like a functional group, and tie into the campaign setting well.

Player Freedom vs Viable Campaigns

When I was just a young player, I had a very combative and fiat-driven GM. Because of that, I tend to fall on the more laissez faire side of GMing; preferring not to interfere with player freedoms. In the past, I would work to make any character concept work for the game, to the point of changing the type of the campaign, so that the player could play the character they wanted.

In writing the Campaign Creation sections of Odyssey, I came to realize that there are such things as a poorly designed party, ones where players come up with concepts that do not fit together or into the world. Since I adopted my philosophy of No More Average Campaigns, there is no reason to take a poorly designed group into a perfectly viable campaign and hope for the best.

There is a middle ground. A GM works alone or with the group to make up a good campaign premise; something that will be enjoyable and playable for the entire group. The players have an equal responsibility to create characters who fit the campaign premise, and in most cases, who can work together as a group. That may mean that they can’t play the exact class they want, or take one power over another; in other words compromise.

As GM, you need to be active in character creation, providing honest feedback, challenging player choices, and helping to facilitate the creation of a group. Character creation should not be a hands off activity for a GM. At the same time, take a hard look at the group of player characters and don’t be shy to say that this group does not have the right stuff, and send them back to the drawing board.

If They Don’t Come…Tear It Down And Build It Again

Mike Mearls said it best, “Each participant is responsible for entertaining everyone else, regardless of player/GM role.” Character creation is not just a player activity, it is a group activity and by working together as a group, the chances that a viable group will be created are much greater. A good group will go a long way in a campaign, and will bring hours of enjoyment to the players who play them as well as the GM who is narrating their way through the campaign world.

Have you ever rejected a player’s character, or an entire group’s set of characters? Do you let players make any kind of character they want, or do you take a more active role in character creation?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.

15 Responses to Character Creation Do Over

  1. I usually treat character creation as a think tank. I give out some group concepts and then the players give suggestions of different roles that they can play.

    Something I enjoy, both as game master and player, is when the players build on each others characters. One may take a trait, and another may suggest another trait for that person, or take a trait that has something to do with it.

    I think it’s more important to create a relation within the group, and by making everybody be part of each others creations, you will form a bond to every character in the group.

    Secrets are a no go in my group. Sure, the character can have a secret but the players should know about this so they can help out and build situations around it.

    Note, I’m not always playing dungeon crawl and action games. I’m into playing intrigues, gumshoe, family drama, doomed fates too. Sometimes even without a game master. But even when I play D&D and Feng Shui, I still let the players assist each other in creating the character. Then I just have to take the concept of the group and insert it in the world, instead of four individuals.

  2. Good piece, Phil. This is one of the harder issues to recognize and address (I think) when running a game. Especially if people really like a concept, but don’t realize it strains a campaign.

    We had a Hollow Earth Expedition campaign that was focused on treasure hunting and had a “real world meets Indiana Jones” flavor — there was weirdness and over the top action…but it always felt like the over-the-top was DANGEROUS. A new player character came in that, while fun to watch do things, strained the connection to the setting flavor a d pushed it more toward, say, the Mummy or bad ’80s action…completely cartoonish.

    It just didn’t work, but the player loved the character. The campaign nosedived.

  3. I’ve ran into that problem before as well, and have found bending the campaign too far to accommodate one player, can leave the rest of the group feeling alienated, or worse punished for trying to create characters that were compatible with the game setting.

    A great trick I’ve found is to have a pre-char creation session hangout, and brainstorm character concepts and how they all might fit together before character creation. This way when character creation night takes place everyone has a solid goal to work towards and its more a matter of fitting the pieces together then trying to make a puzzle that can even fit together int he first place.

    With nwecomers to a campaign already in progress I’ve preferred the method an old GM friend of mine (Moonhunter)uses, to tell them “while the character may be perfectly legitimate in that it follows all of the setting and game play rules, it’s not compatible with my game to create a new one.”

    Most times they understand and come up with something better, and if not then the game goes on without the +1. (A campaign already in progress and running great isn’t something I want to risk lightly.)

  4. I’ve never liked the idea that a character’s entire history should be set in stone before the game even starts. I like to let the characters develop in play. This is especially easy in point-based systems, since you can just leave a certain number of points unspent and allow them to be spent during play (and allow disadvantages to be added in play as well). This has never caused any problems in my games and makes the characters develop much more naturally.

  5. For my first campaign, with a lot of new players who had never done Tabletop before in a system even more of us had never played in a group where most had never gamed together with before, I allowed a lot of running character tweaks. At the start, we sat down and made characters to the best of our ability that each player thought would be fun. It was with the caveat that, for the first couple of months, the players could pretty much swap out any stats they wanted from character creation.

    This could be something small like dropping those six points in Arcane Geology they never use, or something big like moving points out of Strength and Melee skills into ranged weapons because they built a melee focused character but found they prefer ranged combat.

    That worked out really well for us and I think I would keep that system for most new, long term games I run. Of course, as everyone gets used to a game / system, that rule gets tightened on any new characters we create.

  6. It’s been a long-standing policy with any game that I run that the players can do an overhaul of their characters after the first “adventure”. This seems only fair since I’m usually the one pushing new systems on folks and it takes a bit of play experience before you know how to make a character concept gel. So the players can tweak their scores or rebuild their entire character at that point. After the first adventure in the campaign, though, the characters are locked in. I’ve never objected to a player dropping a character to play another, though I usually like to give them a big exit when they do.

    I’m getting ready to start a new campaign and probably wouldn’t have even prompted my group to reveal to one another what sort of prejudices their characters had if I hadn’t been reading Odyssey at the moment. This is the first time we haven’t had a group character creation session – we’re going to be playing the game over Roll20.

    I’ve never run a campaign that so buttoned down that the players needed to adhere to certain character concepts though. I tend to develop in broad strokes, see where the group wants to go and build from there. Every game that I’ve heard about that was high concept (like the infamous “D&D game where everyone plays a member of the thieves guild”) has ended badly after a few sessions.

  7. Another possibility for character creation is to take index cards and have the GM fill them out with the roles and skills that he/she thinks will be necessary in the future campaign. The players will be encouraged to select the role/skill that seems to fit what their character concept is. One could also include an advantage on the card if the skill/role is less desirable but necessary to gameplay. If there is a relationship that the GM wants to have in the game to a plot element this would fit during creation as well (e.g. brother/sister or relative to an NPC). The players can trade and discuss the elements and get things sorted out with just a little prodding from the GM.

  8. I’ve just kicked off character creation for a Star Wars Edge Of The Empire game.

    The trick I find working most often is to have the players start off with “Why does the party exist?” almost to drive out the common goals and motivations that the characters will have.
    Then it’s “Why are these characters the ones in the party?” to enable the players to create links within their backgrounds.
    Only after that do we flesh out the specific characters.

    I talk a little about this on my blog here

  9. I’ve always looked at running and playing RPGs in the same way as writing fiction. It has to make sense. There’s far more leeway in an RPG than a straight narrative, but the principle remains the same. A significant part of having a story make sense is having characters that belong there. Just because a character is really interesting doesn’t mean they’ll fit. Conan the Barbarian is awesome, but he wouldn’t work very well in any of Tolkien’s works.

  10. I always use the Cooperative background generation found somewhere on this site. By using that, you are ALWAYS sure your group has a decent cohesion, no matter what character types the players choose.

  11. What we have done in my current group is allow characters to be changed between sessions. In some cases, choices for a particular character are switched around (attributes, skill points, special abilities, levels, etc.). In other cases the character is completely replaced.

    In the first case, it is to help prevent “poor choices” of character development that do not work the way the player thought, or just don’t fit the concept or campaign for whatever reason.

    In the second, sometimes it is hard to find the “right” character for a particular player and campaign. Maybe the player just picked something without knowing about the campaign, or maybe the player finds that the character does not fit his/her particular play style or preferences.

    Some people might see this as An Abominable Sin, but since we are all trying to have fun as a group, it sucks to be stuck playing a niche or character that you don’t really want to play. If there is something that is so integral to the group and nobody wants to play it, by all means let the GM have an NPC tag along or come up with another way to make it work.

    • I forgot to mention the background part. This is also edited as the game progresses. We try to avoid overt changes, but sometimes details just don’t fit as well as originally thought. While this is not a whole campaign do-over, it can effectively be one if enough editing has taken place over the game. I find that most editing tends to be towards the earlier portion of a campaign, but sometimes what was once believed to be true can find a plot twist “that was true, from a certain point of view” or “I was wrong, they didn’t really do bad experiments on me, I just thought that they were horrible at the time because of my young and naive perspective”.

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